Let’s talk about censorship and academic freedom and Mitch Daniels‘ desire to use the power of government to protect unsuspecting students from “wrong” ideas being foisted on them by books with which he disagreed.
There is no principle more basic to the academy and to the American constitutional system than the principle that forbids such behavior.
The Founders did not minimize the danger of bad ideas; they believed, however, that empowering government to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas would be far more dangerous than the expression of those ideas—that once we hand over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.
As Justice Jackson so eloquently opined in Barnette v. West Virginia Board of Education, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion…”
In these United States, We the People get to decide for ourselves what books we read, what websites we visit, what videos we watch, what ideas we entertain, free of government interference. Your mother can censor you, and in certain situations your boss can censor you–but not your Governor.
Academic freedom is the application of that foundational principle to institutions of higher education.Free intellectual inquiry is an absolutely essential ingredient of genuine education (albeit not so central to job training, with which Mitch often seems to confuse it). Education requires the freedom to examine any and all ideas, to determine which are good and which not so good. It also requires that we protect scholars who come to unpopular conclusions or hold unpopular views from reprisals (that protection is the purpose of tenure).
Some citizens will make poor choices of reading materials or ideologies. Some Professors will embrace perspectives that disturb or offend students and Governors. Despite hysterical rhetoric from the Right, the percentage of college professors who use their classrooms to propagandize is vanishingly small, but just as putting up with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their clones is the price liberals pay for free speech, and putting up with the likes of me is the price conservatives pay, putting up with the occasional academic ideologue is a small price to pay for intellectual freedom.
The search for truth requires that we examine contending ideas, but it does not require the sort of artificial “balance” that ignores scholarly integrity in order to teach creationism in a science class, or that the holocaust never happened in a history class. As a statement from the AAU put it some years back,
Self-appointed political critics of the academy have presented equal representation for conservative and progressive points of views as the key to quality. But the college classroom is not a talk show. Rather, it is a dedicated context in which students and teachers seriously engage difficult and contested questions with the goal of reaching beyond differing viewpoints to a critical evaluation of the relative claims of different positions. Central to the educational aims and spirit of academic freedom, diversity of perspectives is a means to an end in higher education, not an end in itself. Including diversity is a step in the larger quest for new understanding and insight. But an overemphasis on diversity of perspectives as an end in itself threatens to distort the larger responsibilitiesof intellectual work in the academy.
So what are we to make of the disclosure that, while Governor, Mitch Daniels tried to use the power of that position to ensure that teachers and professors did not use a book of which he disapproved, and that he tried to cut funding for a professor who had criticized his policies?
The emails display a breathtaking arrogance, ruthless partisanship, and an autocratic mindset. But most of all–and most troubling, given his current position–they display an absolute ignorance of, and disregard for, the essential purpose and nature of the academy.
Howard Zinn was a reputable if controversial historian. Much of what he wrote was a valuable corrective to the histories of his era; some was oversimplified twaddle. But opinions about the value of his–or any–book are beside the point. The question is “who decides what books are used in the classroom,” and the answer is not ”the governor”. Government functionaries do not get to decide what scholarship is acceptable for classroom use or debate, and elected officials absolutely and emphatically do not get to retaliate against critics by cutting their funding or getting them fired.
I think I was most struck by the unintended irony of Daniels’ emails. He rants about indoctrination while trying to control what students read and see. (I guess it’s only propaganda when its done by someone with whom you disagree.) A Governor who talked endlessly about “limited government” and “freedom” when he was pushing his economic agenda evidently had a very different approach to the marketplace of ideas. (It’s sort of like those “family values” guys who frequent prostitutes and play footsie in airport restrooms.)
Bottom line: the politician as hypocrite and wanna-be autocrat are one thing.
Allowing someone who is so clearly contemptuous of the very purpose of education to lead a great university is an absolute travesty.